Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Flying to their rescue: Pet project Pilots N Paws volunteers help shuttle animals to new homes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At Midwest National Air Center, in Mosley, Mo., a white Piper Cherokee drifts to earth like a paper airplane in the bright twilight, the buzz of its single engine only slightly louder than the chirp of grasshoppers in the surrounding farmland. 

On the ground, the plane noses down deserted runways and taxiways toward the padlocked terminal building. The propeller coughs to a stop, and the pilot unfolds his body backward through the passenger-side door.

Standing on the wing he asks his passenger, “Honey Bee, do you want to get out?”

Honey Bee, a 2-year-old bluetick coonhound, raises her head and cocks her floppy velvet ears. But she remains rooted to the backseat where she has slept most of the two hours since the gentle-voiced stranger picked her up at Spirit of St. Louis Airport and loaded her into this strange vehicle that vibrates like a pickup but is much louder.

The pilot strokes Honey Bee under the chin, then leans in and scoops up the 50-pound hound, no easy feat while trying to keep your footing on a convex aircraft wing.

Even cradling a coonhound, Sam Taylor has the squared shoulders and stick-straight posture of military servicemen. Taylor is a retired Navy helicopter pilot who flew search-and-rescue missions during the Vietnam War. Now he flies animal rescue missions in his plane for a nationwide network called Pilots N Paws.

On average, Taylor goes on one to three rescue flights a week. Most flights are in a 150-mile range, but he has flown much farther.

In September 2010, Taylor was part of a mission that rescued 171 dogs from Louisiana after the Gulf oil spill.

Taylor would go more often if he could afford it. Pilots N Paws pilots pay for their own gas, which averages $48 per hour.

Last year, Taylor spent $3,255 on gas for rescue flights. This year he's up to $2,400 already.

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